I have already written about the other three edible parts of the common milkweed or asclepias syriaca (leaves, flowers and pods) in previous posts but this is the first spring where I have enough shoots to harvest them. In contrast with the other parts of the plant which can be picked off in small amounts without damaging it, collecting shoots means there will be no further growth. So unless you have plenty of them already well-established, you’d be well advised to allow them to grow. I have been encouraging their propagation for a few years now, and they are appearing virtually everywhere – among my perennials, in my vegetable gardens and in containers. There are still plenty in the ‘wild areas’ to provide ample sustenance for any monarch butterflies who make it here in the summer when they are in full bloom.
How to identify them: The shoots resemble young asparagus, but have leaves in opposing pairs pointing upwards against the stem. They have a milky sap and should not have a bitter taste. Any milkweed which tastes bitter, spit out and disregard. Make sure you do not confuse it with dogbane which has a smooth, as opposed to slightly fuzzy stem. Also, the colour of dogbane’s stem is reddish and thinner at the top where milkweed has a consistently green stem and is of equal thickness from top to bottom. Both have milky sap so do not rely on that fact for identification. Be sure you have properly identified it before eating.
Where they grow: This variety is native to the eastern part of North America, and grow wild in open fields, roadsides and hedgerows. Some people cultivate them as ornamental flowers, and their seeds are easily spread. Toxic to many livestock, farmers try to keep their fields clear of it.
How to prepare them: The shoots need to be cooked, but not aggressively. If you are unsure or haven’t tried them before, you can boil them and discard the water. The flavour is similar to that of a cross between green beans and asparagus. If you have a small amount, they can be mixed with these vegetables and prepared in the same way.
The ones I picked were between one and six inches.
As this was the first time I had prepared them I kept it simple. I sauteed them in olive oil with dried garlic flakes and maldon salt for a few minutes until they were cooked through – a thoroughly tasty side dish.